, Muskogee, OK

Local News

February 10, 2013

Woman recalls segregation

Margaret Taylor was one of first black students to attend West Junior High

— “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate,” came the chant from the white students on the playground at Muskogee’s West Junior High School in 1961.

The intent was clear: Margaret Stovall Taylor’s white classmates did not want her or her four friends at their school. They thought intimidation would make them go back to where they belonged: with the other black junior high students.

But Taylor and her classmates weren’t about to leave. Margaret said she had known the feelings of racism and segregation her entire life.

An “unwritten rule” made her mother’s McIntosh Nursing Homes and the other 14 “black rest homes” in Muskogee segregated.

Margaret remembers when she was about 6 or 7 years old she was traveling to California to see her father. The Greyhound bus terminal had separate signs for whites only and blacks only on their restroom doors and water fountains. She remembers having slipped into the white only restroom to see what it was like. She found it no different from the one marked for blacks only.

Those life experiences and little bit of training from her and her peers’ parents made them stay at West.

“I’m very proud of who I am,” Taylor said. “You know how you are born — as far as your color, your stature — that is you. I am one. I am unique. I am the only Margaret there’ll ever be. I am very special, so are you. No one puts me down because of my color. I had nothing to do with that, just like you had nothing to do with how you were born, but you are blessed to be here.”

Taylor said that while blatant racism has subsided, there always will be differences in people.

“Anytime there’s three or more of anything living — animals or people — there’s going to be some segregation about it. One’s hair is too long, or your eyes are too big or you’re too fat.”

In fact, the blatant racism wasn’t all bad, Taylor said. Back then, you knew exactly where you stood — that people didn’t like you because of your skin color. Or they didn’t want to sit by you. Today, that kind of open talk is not politically correct, and you don’t always know where you stand with other people, she said.

Like Taylor, her mother, Jessie Mae McIntosh, learned about racism early in life.

McIntosh and her sisters and cousins had an a capella gospel group — the Five Songbirds.

They performed at churches, conventions, on radio and many other gatherings in Oklahoma and Kansas for many years.

Despite segregation, Jessie McIntosh was successful in business. She was born at 17th and Warrior streets in 1907 and attended Dunbar, Sadler and Manual Training schools. She was valedictorian of her graduating class. She worked as a ship welder during World War II, and when she returned to Muskogee she bought a house here, as well as the house next door, Taylor said.

That was before the days of fast food and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McIntosh had the intention of turning the second house into a fried chicken restaurant, but her husband wanted no part of business and their marriage dissolved.

McIntosh was working as a private duty nurse when the white woman she was working for asked her what she would like to have been had she been born white, Taylor said.

McIntosh responded that she would like to have been a doctor.

Her employer suggested that she look into going into a new business — a nursing home. That set McIntosh to thinking, and she went to Muskogee businessman Grant Smith and mortgaged her furniture to pay the rent and utilities for three months on a house at 24th and Topeka Streets. When the three months ended, McIntosh had filled the seven-bed facility. By the time of her death in 1974, Jessie McIntosh had expanded her nursing home to more than 70 beds.

Taylor said her mother succeeded, not despite her color, but rather because of determination.

“Anything she set her mind to, it would have been a success,” Taylor said. “She was a hell of a business woman. You would have thought she had a masters in business administration.”

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